Years ago, an opposition party raised a suspicion that Lee Jae-myung, then Seongnam mayor and current presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, made several companies sponsor a city-run professional football club in exchange for resolving their issues mostly related to land use and construction authorization. Lee was the president of the club at the time.
Six companies offered a total of 16.05 billion won ($13.3 million) to the team under the pretext of sponsorship and advertising fees from 2015-2017.
Following an accusation by the defunct Bareun Mirae Party in June 2018, the police investigated the allegation for three years and three months, only to drop the case in September last year for lack of evidence.
Lee was suspected of making the six “third parties” offer bribes to the football club in return for doing them a favor. He refused to be questioned in person so police questioned him in writing.
The accuser raised an objection to the police decision and the case was sent to the Seongnam Branch of the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office. However, the branch has been undecided for about four months over whether to launch a reinvestigation or not.
Then Seongnam branch Deputy Chief Prosecutor Park Ha-young is said to have tendered his resignation Tuesday in protest against his superior’s alleged obstruction of his plan to reinvestigate the case.
His superior was Seongnam branch Chief Prosecutor Park Eun-jeong, a pro-government figure who played an active role in November 2020 as an inspector of the Justice Ministry in Minister Choo Mi-ae’s push for a disciplinary action against Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol, currently presidential candidate of the opposition People Power Party.
If Yoon was involved in the allegation, her response would have been different.
Prosecutor General Kim Oh-soo instructed the Suwon District chief prosecutor to look into what was going on regarding the suspicion that the investigation was being obstructed. However, the district chief prosecutor is well known for being loyal to the current administration. He also went to the same university as Lee. It is hard to expect him to look into things properly.
Park Ha-young reportedly emphasized the need to reinvestigate the case to Park Eun-jeong on several occasions, but she instructed him to reconsider it every time he requested her approval of reinvestigation. She effectively blocked reinvestigation of the allegation. Before offering his resignation, Park Ha-young is said to have posted an internal bulletin message that he had tried to find ways to continue working only to find no other way but to resign.
If it turned out that donations to the football club were made in exchange for favors over government approvals, that may constitute the crime of bribery through third parties. Obstruction of an investigation constitutes a crime of abusing official authority.
The administration under President Moon Jae-in has sought to reform the prosecution as if it was for the sake of the people, but in reality, the reform turned out to be for the sake of blocking investigations into allegations involving those in power or figures close to them. The Seongnam FC scandal is one of them.
The Seongnam Branch denies suspected obstruction of reinvestigation, but it is hard to believe. The allegation must be fully investigated. When the Baekhyeon-dong land development scandal involving Seongnam City when Lee was its mayor was revealed in the wake of a similar scandal in Daejang-dong, the Seongnam Branch did not investigate the case directly but left it up to the police. The builder is said to have taken profits of 300 billion won, largely thanks to Seongnam City’s change of the use of land after the company employed a figure close to Lee.
How to handle a case involving a high-profile candidate ahead of the presidential election is a very sensitive question. Nevertheless, the prosecution must not consider political outcomes when digging out the truth. All it has to do is proceed with its investigations based on facts. It must not beat around the bush.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org